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High court accepts assisted suicide case, rejects Roe appeal

WASHINGTON (BP)–The U.S. Supreme Court agreed Feb. 22 to decide if the federal government can prevent drugs from being used in assisted suicides, but it declined a request to reconsider its 1973 opinion legalizing abortion.

The high court announced it would review a lower court decision last year that blocked a Department of Justice ban on the use of federally regulated drugs in physician-assisted suicides in Oregon, which is the only state where the practice is legal. The justices will hear oral arguments in Gonzales v. Oregon during the next term, which begins in October.

Without comment, the justices refused to grant a review in a case involving the woman whose challenge of a Texas law resulted in all state laws against abortion being overturned. Norma McCorvey, who was identified as “Jane Roe” in the Roe v. Wade opinion that legalized abortion, had asked the high court to accept her appeal and overturn the ruling that has produced about 45 million legal abortions in the last 32 years.

In the assisted suicide case, the Department of Justice appealed a ruling by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that then-Attorney General John Ashcroft did not have the authority to bar the use of federally controlled drugs in helping patients take their lives. In May 2004, a three-judge panel of the appeals court voted 2-1 to uphold a federal judge’s injunction blocking enforcement of the Ashcroft directive.

Ashcroft resigned after November’s elections, and Alberto Gonzales was sworn in as attorney general in mid-February.

In November 2001, Ashcroft ruled the use of drugs regulated by the federal Controlled Substances Act in performing assisted suicides is not permitted. Though his directive did not overturn Oregon law, it meant physicians who prescribe or pharmacists who distribute federally controlled substances to aid in suicide may have their licenses to prescribe and dispense such drugs rescinded.

Pro-life advocates welcomed the high court’s decision to accept the case.

“The court has an opportunity to insure that patients receive truly compassionate care and pain relief by limiting physicians’ use of narcotics for healing – not death,” David Stevens, executive director of the Christian Medical Association, said in a written statement. “We don’t need to empower physicians to administer lethal doses of narcotics. We need to empower physicians to administer truly pain-relieving doses of narcotics.

“We need to send a message that even in our darkest hours, life is still worth living, that loved ones will come alongside to help and that doctors will treat pain effectively and compassionately – not with a lethal prescription.”

The controversy over the use of federally regulated drugs in assisted suicides began in 1997 when Oregon voters reaffirmed an earlier initiative that had been blocked in the courts. The Death With Dignity Act made it legal for a person to request a prescription for drugs to take his life when he is judged by two doctors to have less than six months to live.

Shortly thereafter, Thomas Constantine, then administrator of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, ruled the prescription of federally supervised drugs for suicide would be considered a violation of the Controlled Substances Act.

Several months later, however, then-Attorney General Janet Reno overruled Constantine, saying the law does not permit the federal government to take action against physicians who prescribe medication for terminally ill patients in order for them to commit suicide. Ashcroft reversed her ruling after he took office.

Through 2003, 171 people had died by assisted suicide in Oregon since it was legalized.

The rejection of McCorvey’s appeal was expected. The Supreme Court has reaffirmed the Roe opinion and maintains a 6-3 majority among its current justices in support of the ruling.

A federal judge in Dallas rebuffed McCorvey’s request in 2003. In September, a panel of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously dismissed her case.

After working for an abortion rights organization, McCorvey became a Christian in 1995. She also became a pro-lifer and later converted to Catholicism.

The high court’s Roe opinion, decided by a 7-2 vote, overturned all state laws prohibiting abortion. In combination with the Doe v. Bolton decision released at the same time, the ruling had the effect of permitting abortion for any reason throughout pregnancy.

On Feb. 22, the justices also declined to review a lower court decision upholding a state law prohibiting the sale of sex toys, the Associated Press reported. Representing merchants and toy users, the American Civil Liberties Union sought to overturn the 1998 Alabama law. According to AP, the ACLU based its appeal on the high court’s 2003 Lawrence v. Texas opinion, which struck down state laws against sodomy.

A three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last year in favor of the law, arguing if the judges established a “new fundamental right” it would pave the way for the legalization of “adult incest, prostitution, obscenity and the like,” AP reported.

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